Abolish Overseas Undergraduate Scholarships

by M. Bakri Musa

Every year at this time the nation goes through its regular spasms of indignation over perceived unfair distribution of scholarships for studies abroad for those with the Sijil Persekutuan Malaysia (SPM). This being Malaysia, such controversies inevitably and quickly acquire ugly racial overtones, no matter how ‘objective’ or ‘sophisticated’ the arguments put forth.

I suggest that we abolish all public scholarships for undergraduate studies abroad. That would at least remove yet another source of racial disagreement. The fewer such contentious issues we have, the better it would be for Malaysia.

Public scholarships for studies abroad should only be given to those pursuing higher degrees. As for the handful of our brightest who secured undergraduate slots at the world’s most competitive universities, rest assured that there will be no shortage of sponsors outside of government if these students were truly in need of financial aid.

Whatever money left over after funding those pursuing higher degrees abroad should then be diverted to strengthening our local universities, which desperately need the support.

A candidate with only the SPM regardless of the number of A’s obtained could secure a place only at a third-rate institution in America. We do not need to send our students there. Even when on the rare occasions that they do end up at a respectable university, these students have to spend a semester or two doing preparatory courses (essentially Sixth Form).

Cheaper To Hire American Professors

This may surprise many, but it is actually less expensive to hire a full (not an assistant) professor from America than to send one undergraduate there. Let me review the arithmetic.

The average American professor earns about US$100K annually; pay her that to come to Malaysia. Out of that she would probably spend about $40K for local living expenses. At that level (about RM140K) she would have a lifestyle that would be the envy of her former colleagues in America. Additionally she would spend $10K for transportation, another $10K for her driver, maid and gardener, and $5K for local holidays. Then there is the local income tax of about $20K. At the end of the year she would be lucky to have $15K to remit home.

The rest ($85K) would be spent locally to benefit the area hamburger joints, satay sellers, and apartment owners, among others. Imagine the multiplier effect of that spending.

Contrast that to sending one student to America at an average cost of $50K per year. That whole sum is lost from the country, with no spin-off or multiplier effect in Malaysia. Thus in terms of actual foreign currency loss, it is over three times more expensive to send a student to America than to hire an American professor ($50K versus $15K).

That extra expense would have been worthwhile if we were to send our students to the MITs and Harvards of America, but we are not. This is true especially of JPA and MARA students, and only slightly less so with Petronas.

Imagine if our universities were to have a critical mass of American faculty members. The first impact would be felt at the faculty level. Those local faculty members would now have real competition and new academic role models, scholars instead of politicians in academic robes. One reason the National University of Singapore had a quantum leap in improvement was its recruitment of many foreign academics way back in the 1970s, despite the opposition of local professors.

Our universities need a generous infusion of foreign academics as there is a limited local supply. Even our so-called top tier universities have fewer than half of their faculty members having terminal qualifications.

For the students, they would now have not the typical aloof and imperious Third World professor but a more approachable and less formal teacher. Lastly for the university, it would end up with a scholarly-productive faculty. That incidentally is the only way for the university to ascend the academic scale.

Sending a student abroad would only benefit him; the nation would gain later, and only if he were to return. If he would not, the country could never recoup the loss. On the other hand, that one professor would directly and immediately benefit local students, the university, and thus the nation.

We send about 2,000 new students abroad a year at a cost of at least RM350 million. Assuming that such students spend on average about four years abroad, the total annual budget must be in the range of RM1.4 billion (350 x 4). Compare that to the 2009 operating budget for all our public universities of RM14.1 billion!

Fallacious Arguments on Meritocracy

I am surprised how otherwise intelligent Malaysians would suddenly have a sudden and almost religious faith in the validity of the SPM as a measure of merit. One needs only peruse the examination, as well as the syllabus and textbooks on which those examination is based, to be disabused of this misplaced confidence. If you need further affirmation, just sit in one of those classes and see what the teachers’ expectations are of the students.

The SPM measures how faithfully the students could regurgitate what the teachers had imparted to them in class. Thus it is an excellent surrogate indicator of a student’s memory, hard work, and obedience to authority figures. The first two qualities will get you far anywhere. I am uncertain of the value of the third. While it will get you far in the Third World and authoritarian societies, I am certain that it is not an attribute that we should hold at a premium if we were to progress.

What we need instead is the ability for critical thinking, problem solving, and communicating effectively. Unfortunately those are not the skills we are teaching and testing our students.

Nobody even questions the ridiculousness of a student sitting for 20 subjects! A matriculating American high school student sits for only seven subjects, at most. The American standardized test, SAT I, covers only three: English, mathematics, and writing skills. Even top American universities require the SAT II (or subject SAT) in only three subjects, while students sit for at most five subjects.

Seven should be enough fro SPM, and focus more on content. The International Baccalaureate, now recognized as the global standard for matriculation, offers only six subjects, while its middle school program (equivalent to our SPM), only 8.

Minister of Education Muhyyuddin’s proposal to reduce the SPM offerings to 10 subjects represents the usual seat-of-the-pants decision rather than the result of serious policy deliberations. He only adds to the muddle.

Even SAT which has been the most evaluated is not the end all and be all in terms of student evaluation. Harvard and other top universities could easily fill their slots with class valedictorians and perfect SAT scorers, but they do not. These institutions recognize that no one test can be valid for all students. And on any one test, its discriminatory value diminishes rapidly at the extremes of the curve.

Yet we have those who would ascribe miraculous powers to SPM such that someone with 20 A’s should automatically get a scholarship over another with only 13 or 9! They are ascribing to the SPM a degree of precision it does not deserve. The SPM has yet to prove itself as a valid instrument in the first place.

These misplaced discussions on merit remind me of two items. I am told that in the old cemeteries of Beijing, the civil service examination scores of the ancient Mandarins were chiseled onto their tombstones! Nobody bothered to find out how well those Imperial civil servants were at solving the problems of the Empire. The second was a delightful essay, “Lost in the Meritocracy” I read The Atlantic in 2005 (now available in a book form) by the writer and critic Walter Kirn. His thesis is essentially that these tests really measure how well you could outwit the test designers!

Back in my days in high school when examinations were essays rather than the SAT-style multiple-choice fill-in-the-blanks, success was measured on how well you could “spot” the questions, which of course is a variation on the same theme.

The controversies over SPM are symptomatic of a much more serious problem with our entire school system. These arguments over scholarships based on SPM distract us from addressing these other more fundamental issues.

  1. #1 by Joshua on Monday, 1 June 2009 - 9:00 am

    Ask TDM why this policy was invented to catch up with the races in m’sia out of spite and jealousy of the dilemma.

    Now it is an addiction and has back fire on the nation on the slippery road to oblivion as we may have a first world class technology (imported if we still can afford it) and third world mentaility… how not to go on profligacy of Rm30 trillions and more…

  2. #2 by k1980 on Monday, 1 June 2009 - 9:07 am

    Scholarships for studies abroad for those with SPM (6As can do lah) are meant to reward the children of umno stalwarts. To abolish such scholarships, we need to abolish unmo first

  3. #3 by the reds on Monday, 1 June 2009 - 9:19 am

    Definitely, hiring American professor would be one the of best options to increase the reputation of our Malaysia’s university, though. The question is with our current racism and conservative policy, is it possible for our government to recruit genuinely competent American professor?

    Mind you, even a Malaysian non-bumiputra with a strong education background can hardly be recruited in our Malaysia’s university!

  4. #4 by OnandOn on Monday, 1 June 2009 - 9:30 am

    Once I was in the immigration department to renew my passport. I met one youngg malay girl who look so happy while filling up the new passport form. “Where you going?”, “Actually, I was informed that got full oversea scholarship!”, “Wow, congratulation! So, where are you going?”, “Sorry, I don’t know where is the university in what coutry?”
    Mak-datuk, she don’t even know where the country she going!!!
    Don’t tell me the scholarship was the “lucky draw” prize.

  5. #5 by ltg on Monday, 1 June 2009 - 9:36 am

    Mr. M. Bakri Musa,

    Great idea! But unfortunately, this is not going to happen in a MILLION years.
    First, most Malaysian parents will object to the abolishment of the Overseas Undergraduate Scholarships because these will support some of the “lucky” ones.
    Going overseas is a big thing. Going for an Ivy League is even bigger if the Government is willing to cover the expenses. Second, a sort of reasonably well-established professor will not simply come to Malaysia. The sacrifice is too big! Not to mention these people will see Malaysia as an “Islamic” country and the US embassy in Malaysia has already faced several incidents. These are enough to discourage them to come to our country to teach and do research. Third, the local faculty will not welcome these American professors since they will pose great “career-threat “ to the local faculty, ultimately resulting the positions of University Chancellors will be at stake as well. So the abolishment of the Overseas Undergraduate Scholarships is a wishful thinking!

  6. #6 by -ec- on Monday, 1 June 2009 - 10:05 am

    there was an ‘unlikely’ ‘mistaken’ enrollment of students by USM. 4574 students affected.

    can we have the list of students and break them down by races and subject allocated? not sure if any race is ‘particularly affected’?

    and, 4574 out of the total 8173 students is quite a population, we could use the breakdown of 4574 to look at the overall trend of intake by race by subject.

    anyone interested to do some statistics? omg, the country’s top university huh?! the truth is: by calling yourself top university does not make you a top university!

  7. #7 by DAP man on Monday, 1 June 2009 - 10:28 am

    Aiya, ministers want to send their children overseas,ma. They dont trust local uni.

  8. #8 by Loh on Monday, 1 June 2009 - 10:32 am

    ///Imagine if our universities were to have a critical mass of American faculty members. The first impact would be felt at the faculty level. Those local faculty members would now have real competition and new academic role models, scholars instead of politicians in academic robes. One reason the National University of Singapore had a quantum leap in improvement was its recruitment of many foreign academics way back in the 1970s, despite the opposition of local professors.///–MUSA

    The above argument sounds as convincing if the ‘critical mass of American faculty members’ is replaced by appointing teaching staff to the universities based on meritocracy without regard to racial quota and nationality.

    Cerainly BN government would prefer ‘critical mass of American faculty members’ to non-Malays Malaysians. They cannot go against NEP, so foreigners can be prefered to Malaysians.

  9. #9 by Godfather on Monday, 1 June 2009 - 10:39 am

    This is not necessarily a racial issue, so we shouldn’t look at it as one. It is an issue that Mamakthir created to give scholarships to the connected (read: UMNOputras) and then he gave scholarships to the poor bumis to study at Mara. It explains why the scholarship defaulters are generally not worried about defaulting as no action will be taken against their UMNOputra parents.

    You eliminate UMNO from the next GE, and this problem will solve itself. I am in favour of giving scholarships to the deserving Malays to go overseas because this is one way to help the country progress with open eyes.

  10. #10 by TomThumb on Monday, 1 June 2009 - 10:53 am

    “I suggest that we abolish all public scholarships for undergraduate studies abroad.”

    no. only for children of ministers who have no business being on scholarships in the first place since their parents can afford to send them. they messed up the education policy, set up sub-standard educational institutions with poor teachers then they send their children abroad.

  11. #11 by pulau_sibu on Monday, 1 June 2009 - 11:13 am

    I felt so glad that there is at least another person who shared my similar opinion. My suggestion was not based on the racial issue, but from the view point of practicability, and the need of the country. We have been living in a mode where we still consider undergraduate education as the upper limit. Undergraduate education is like the senior high of half a century ago. At that time, if you hold a HSC certificate, you are mostly among the top. But things have changed as our society improved in its standard.

    We need to build up the standard of our own institutions, else forget about asking other people to come to study here. The few successful nations in Asia, such as Taiwan and Korea, do send students overseas, but mostly for PhD and postdoc research. Only underdeveloped countries kept sending students to the undergraduate programs. Or students who failed to enter the local institutions have had to go to study at a third-class institution overseas. Undergraduate programs are mostly related to knowledge developed more than a century or two ago. In many cases, developing countries do a better job in producing undergraduates than developed countries, which focus on research and development.

    I don’t mean the government alone, the public in general should change this wrong perspective of sending kids to study overseas even for their high schools. There is no need to let this vast amount of currency flowing out. If you want some experience overseas, you can go for student exchange. There are various ways of doing it. You can pay for something that we really need after finishing your fist degree.

    The ministers should first change their mentality. No more undergraduate scholarships for overseas study, please. The public should be discouraged to do it as well.

  12. #12 by imperial09 on Monday, 1 June 2009 - 12:10 pm

    Oversea scholarship should be reserved for those attained outstanding STPM /A-Levels or equiv. AND obtained places in world top ranking Uni. such as those in \the Ivy League\.

    It is no point to send SPM graduates to oversea average uni like
    Brighton etc. , just a waste of MY money (Tax-payer money\
    or public fund..

    15A in SPM looks great, but some of them even saying they very to get such results ???

    Time to revise..

  13. #13 by TomThumb on Monday, 1 June 2009 - 12:13 pm

    send only those who qualify to enter ivy league institutions such as yale and harvard in the us and oxford and cambridge in the uk.

  14. #14 by pulau_sibu on Monday, 1 June 2009 - 12:27 pm

    I was told it is not difficult to get into harvard and yale or ivy league if you have money. make a big donations of several million US$ and your son or daughter will be given a place.

  15. #15 by johnnypok on Monday, 1 June 2009 - 12:36 pm

    Quantity matters, and the idea is produce as many graduates as possible, regardless if they are stupid or unemployable. The end result is creating a handicapped society, and becoming another source of supplying cheap domestic servants with worthless degrees and Phds!

  16. #16 by ekompute on Monday, 1 June 2009 - 12:56 pm

    I think we still need those scholarships because we have a hopeless education system here in Malaysia, LOL.

  17. #17 by raven77 on Monday, 1 June 2009 - 1:11 pm

    Mana boleh bawa American Professors to our Unis maa…then how to leak the questions and make them pass ….then we cannot lah have all those those thousands of lawyers, doctors and engineers graduationg….ini macam ..I suggest…American Professors must first be sent to Biro Tatanegara to be indoctrinated with the necessary UMNO culture so that American Professors can contribute accordingly to what UMNO wants….

  18. #18 by poor dad on Monday, 1 June 2009 - 2:30 pm

    If our student can’t even understand “kampung” English do you expect them to understand American English? Hence, it is important to master English then!

    Bakri’s idea is, without doubt, a good place to start for our kids future!

  19. #19 by pulau_sibu on Monday, 1 June 2009 - 3:30 pm

    A lousy place will not attract good professors. Saudi Arabia has a lot of money to build a new university, with the former NUS president (Shih) as the university president. It offers very attractive salary, but who will be willing to go there (lousy hottest weather, afraid of hudud law, no drinking, no fun).

    Your arithmetic is right and the logic is great about being cheaper to hire the American professors. There is no need to get the best American professors, but the so so American professors can be good enough. Overall, many of our boleh professors are from the third class American or British universities. These cheap professors can help to reeducate the lousy boleh professors. The difficulty in getting professors who do research is they are more expensive to invest. They are not looking for just salary, but also research facilities.

    Singapore is great, but they do not have the world first class researchers (I only know that they have better researchers than us). To them, getting the Chinese who cannot find jobs in USA and Europe is still a good investment. That is why Singapore is now flooded with mainland Chinese. Singapore is now less successful in attracting top researchers compared to HK and Taiwan, which offer more attractive salary. Singapore has a bad hot weather and there is no way to go within the small island (isolated). Some of those researchers who returned to Taiwan and HK were native to these lands. I guess Singapore did not have much of their own well established people, and this must be the same for boleh.

  20. #20 by kerishamuddinitis on Monday, 1 June 2009 - 10:38 pm

    wow, tomdumbo got it right this time. yeah the BN ministers all this while – 51 years. time to kick them out. sure way to stop them abusing scholarships.

  21. #21 by slashed on Tuesday, 2 June 2009 - 3:37 am

    Why will American professors be interested in coming to Malaysia? We’re already having trouble securing the interests of foreign investors and we presume that we can bring in lecturers?

    Academics seek work in places where they can grow, conduct their research, publish, and build a reputation. None of these are what we generally associate with the Malaysian university environment. Western universities promote discussion, encourage its students to challenge norms, and ultimately to be an individual. Malaysian universities have highly politicized student bodies, clamp down on open discussion and punish individuality. Why will one choose to stay if one can go elsewhere?

    Now, the greater problem is that of the brain drain. We are aware that students (whether on scholarship or not) are not coming back. But barring those that deserve to go overseas to go will not solve the problem. It will make things worse. Singapore has been actively poaching our brains. They’ve come to visit universities here in the UK seeking people to join them (including the GIC! and Temasek). They’ve been offering our students scholarships. Now, what we don’t give to our own students, others will. And they will keep them.

    To top it all off the corrupt who already swimming in dirty money will still send their kids overseas… regardless of scholarship monies or not.

  22. #22 by sotong on Tuesday, 2 June 2009 - 8:46 am

    Overseas education is one thing……but if you don’t mix/integrate with the local people, you don’t learn much.

    Most of our scholarship students do not mix…..only stick to their own race and religion.

    Besides serving their political party, what are their contribution to the society?

    What a waste of public and taxpayers’ money!!

  23. #23 by TomThumb on Tuesday, 2 June 2009 - 9:00 am

    kerishamuddin can suck my thumb

  24. #24 by Loh on Tuesday, 2 June 2009 - 11:00 am

    DM once said that Malaysia should have 70 million population. He also said that to shoo, (or shoot) the boat people trying to land at the east coast, in the 80s. So he wanted only muslim population to increase.

    When the world practised family planning to prevent maltus theory coming true, malaysia had only family development; that development refers to number only.

    UMNO used the award of scholarships to hoodwink Malay polulation into producing more children, and to make it convincing, they have to display biasedness. The increase in the Malay population over other races convinces them that their approach produced results. They will not change their policy of awarding overseas scholarships for undergraduate courses.

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